But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29)
I throw a mean dinner party. The food is good — interesting, delicious while also being incredibly comforting. There is always enough: enough wine and music and drinks and laughter. No matter if it’s soup and bread and San Pellegrino or our annual Burns Supper with fancy dress, people leave with full bellies and full souls, living richly in community around the table.
For me, it’s easy to love my friends and neighbors that way. It’s satisfying to love others well around the table — to open up spaces where others are welcomed into abundant and generous life.
But this question keeps echoing as I’ve been thinking through neighborliness: Who is my neighbor?
I know the right answers like the teacher of the Law in Jesus’ parable. I know what it looks like to follow the Law, to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength and all your mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). I do all the right things. I go to Bible study. I teach Bible studies. I’m even a pastor’s wife! So surely, I’ve got all this “loving God and neighbor” thing sorted right? Surely, since we open up our hearts and homes regularly to others. Surely I’m following the Law.
But here is where it hinges for me, the Teacher’s question, which Luke records as: “But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” (Luke 10:29).
Oh how my heart drops with that opening clause: but he wanted to justify himself. I see that sin pattern so deeply ingrained in my own heart I’m not even aware of it. I see it in my children’s propensity to argue and always need to be right. I see it when I use my dinner parties or giving to the homeless or meeting with a college girl who needs to talk, as ways that I give as evidence I’m loving my neighbor. And I am. Sharing a fancy or simple meal, or sharing a coffee and encouraging someone is grace; it is loving God well; it is having the courage to be present and just show up.
But those people are not my only neighbors. And honestly they’re the easy neighbors.
For me, the hard neighbors are the ones I live with. The ones who really see me.
My neighbor is my son who wants so desperately to be right.
My neighbor is my middle son who is so full of zestful life that he’s so very loud.
My neighbor is my youngest son who is going through the 3-year-old differentiation phase and tells me petulantly, “Sure, you can think that Mom.”
My neighbor is my little girl, who still wakes up in the middle of the night, grabbing to nurse when I just want to sleep.
My neighbor is my husband, who comes home tired and yet full of vision and I steamroller him, as I keep talking and neglect to ask questions to draw him out.
I just keep justifying myself. Desperately wanting to see my life around the table as worth it — as evidence of loving God and my neighbor well. But do I love my neighbors right under my nose well?
In response to the Teacher’s question, Jesus tells the Parable of the Good Samaritan. At its conclusion, Jesus asks the Teacher who was the neighbor to the hurt man; to which he replies, “the one who had shown mercy.” Mercy. In case you’re a bit hazy on your terms, here’s the definition for “mercy”: “compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm.”
Because even if I don’t physically harm or punish my children or husband with my body or my words, there is often an internal justification of my own desires or point of view at the expense of theirs. My husband needs to help out more because I’ve had a hard day, my children need to be quiet, responsible and obedient because I’ve given up so much for them; those I counsel should accept my wisdom because I’m so good at giving advice. It’s all about me. It’s all about how I justify myself, how I try to make myself right – whether it’s giving the homeless man a meal, or throwing a great dinner party, or loving my family.
Sometimes it’s a slog and the truth of my continual justification just hurts. Other times grace and mercy break through for me, too, who is so very similar to the Teacher of the Law. The other day, for dinner I bought crusty bread and fancy cheese and olives. We set the table with candles and an orchid. We poured out the good bottle of wine we’d been saving. Nothing extraordinary had happened, in fact it’d been a rather crumby day. But I’m learning in very baby steps that grace is not about hoarding, but pouring out for all who we come into contact with. Most often my neighbor is my family in all of our glorious and messy mundane lives. And we have a Father who is so very rich in mercy and who lays a table for us, poor wretched souls who continually look to our record-keeping to justify ourselves. I’m learning through the grace of truth it’s only as I come to his table that I can set a rich table of welcome for others – for my neighbors and for my family.